Of Wishes and Walls

What Can a Debate on Building Walls Teach Us About Rebooting Today’s Political Discourse?

Whether you consider Donald Trump’s pledge to build a wall on the Mexican border, or the debate raging in EU countries on limiting migratory flows, building walls has become the rallying cry of the right on both sides of the Atlantic. That borders have taken center stage in the left-right divide is no accident. Indeed, it is possible to interpret traditional positions of the right and left as a preference for boundaries, or their overcoming.

Conservative preferences align tightly with a wish for boundaries: just consider the right’s insistence on traditional gender boundaries and a preference for individual responsibility and family units versus the collective. Conservative politicians are more willing to divide between “us” and “them”, as can be witnessed in Trump’s rhetoric. This contrasts sharply with the position of left-leaning groups, which put less emphasis on questions of origin and more on inclusion and eliminating boundaries between individuals, groups and peoples; witness the more welcoming approach to migrants and refugees. Notable, as well, is the right’s preference for clear physical and psychological boundaries, a preference for “law and order”.

When considering the left-right paradigm from this perspective, we see the nucleus of the dilemmas plaguing both the left and the right. As a force calling for the dissolution of boundaries, the left’s dilemma becomes clear: a completely borderless, porous world is a utopia: consider, for instance, how unrealistic it is to expect parents not to treat their own children preferentially compared with individuals they do not know. This preference for those physically and psychologically “closer” is seeded in the nature of humans as creatures bounded by space and time, normally living in one family and one country. This is the left’s quandary.

At the same time, the human spirit, especially in times of plenty, strives to overcome itself. Logically, it understands the subjectivity of its position (that “the other” is a person like oneself). It sees justice in wanting to be more inclusive. This is the right’s dilemma: whoever votes conservative, or far-right, will arguably grasp that she is not necessarily engaging her most idealistic, generous side; witness the heightened level of social pessimism inherent in Trump’s rallies. Whoever builds a wall will have a hard time reaching out beyond it; if she is fair, she will realize that at least to some extent, it is arbitrary that she lives on the “right” side of the wall.

Considering these aspects, it becomes clear that both viewpoints have their validity; indeed, it is part of the human challenge to find the right compromise between what in essence are two contradictory, but valid, motivations. The “ideal place” on this right-left, “boundary versus overcoming” continuum depends not only on a society’s relative wealth and maturity, but, on a more individual level, on personal preference; witness individual’s varying comfort levels with constancy versus change, safety versus adventure.

Considering society’s choice in the right-left, open-closed continuum is based on factors like maturity and individual preference, it is short-sighted to reflexively drag the debate into the moral realm of “right” and “wrong”. In today’s world, where moralizing often seems more a tactic than conviction, voters have become weary of it. While some undecided voters may still be swayed, attempts to moralize the debate has poisoned discourse between ideological fault lines.

Instead of moralizing, the debate should be re-framed in terms of maturity, preference and reciprocity, to enable a determination of society’s preferences through the democratic process, including defining a societally acceptable speed, magnitude and direction of change. The primary implication would be the avoidance of an absurd debate with absolutist positions, where at least half the population, if not more, will find itself the loser. Today’s polarization is arguably to a large extent a result of insufficient consensus-building before the implementation of large-scale changes.

This is unfortunately a big failing of our current leaders and media, who relish portraying our options in absolutist terms, accelerated by a catering to the own base typical of our “Twitter era”. Both sides can rationally agree that a shift between a bordered and border-less society should be gradual enough that it does not overstrain society. Ultimately, a non-moralizing debate bent on finding the point of social compromise in the context of boundaries, both physical and symbolic, will result in an arrangement that a vast majority of society, whether left-or right-leaning, will more readily agree to.